By Ron Simpson
On 25 April 2016, CAST in Doncaster is to hold a special event, a “Give What You Can” fundraising evening for the theatre with Artistic Director Kully Thiarai, joined by friends and guests for an evening of memories, music and performance. The special significance of what is certain to be a warm-hearted and entertaining evening is that it is Thiarai’s Curtain Call. In May, the founding Artistic Director of CAST takes up the post of Artistic Director and Chief Executive of National Theatre Wales.
As she looks back, she is proud to have silenced the doubters and even more proud that the audiences have impressed as much by their sense of belonging as by their numbers:
“By the time I leave, I’ll have been here nearly four years and the theatre will be three years old in September. It was always going to be difficult launching a brand new business in a brand new venue. Some days it was very hard, but there was a buzz about doing something so new and so different – and also, I guess, the thrill of doing something that, in the early days, some people thought we wouldn’t pull off.
“But the audiences have been brilliant. Who would have said that last year over 82,000 people would buy tickets? That doesn’t include all the free events we did or the activities in the square or the foyers. 82,000 people buying theatre tickets in Doncaster in one year is a huge achievement. A few weeks ago we had 800 people on a Saturday for contemporary dance. Who would have said in Doncaster that we’d have a sold out show in the evening and a matinee full of people for a contemporary dance piece by Gary Clarke called Coal? The enthusiasm of the audience and the engagement in the post-show discussion was fantastic. One of the joys of being in Doncaster has been that audiences have really embraced us and our artists comment on the authentic relationship we have here with the public. The audiences here are not afraid to try new things. We’ve been surprised and delighted at the diversity of work we’ve been able to put in the smaller space and audiences there have grown.”
Ask about the major successes of CASTs brief life and Tharai struggles to know where to start. CAST was never set up financially as a producing house, so the number of totally home-produced shows has been few but all have been great successes: the Christmas pantomime, for instance, has, in Thiarai’s words, “grown exponentially” over three years. Many other successes reflect the strong community involvement at CAST. Thiarai cites examples of professional involvement in enacting the stories of the people of Doncaster before telling of a major street event: “We did the Colour of Time which was an explosion of colour and was a processional piece that started in the High Street and came through the streets of Doncaster and ended here in the square. We had between 1,800 and 2,000 people turn up for that and it was something no one had experienced here. The Facebook messages after that were, ‘Can you do it again?’ and ‘Can you do it longer?’”
Strong relations with established and newly founded theatre and dance companies have been crucial for CAST and increasingly it’s not just been a matter of booking in a touring show, but providing skill, expertise and rehearsal space at the development phase. Thiarai reels off a highly impressive list of regional and national companies with which CAST has a creative partnership, but perhaps the best indication is her final season’s programme for April to June.
CLOCKS 1888: the greener (15-16 April) is the world premiere of a “steampunk opera” produced by Brolly,aBAME led cross arts company whose co-artistic directorRachana Jadhavhails from Doncaster, opening at CAST before the show heads to the Hackney Empire. Two major touring productions, Get Carter (5-9 April ) and Shadowlands (26-30 April), link CAST with Northern Stage and the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre respectively. Dance covers a wide field with the best companies and performers: Breakin’ Convention (7 May ), an international festival of hip hop dance, is a Sadler’s Wells Project, while Northern Ballet (19-21 May) brings adult and children’s ballets: Jane Eyre and Tortoise &the Hare. And so it goes onwhile the flexible Second Space fills with everything from experimental theatre to silent film, from stand-up comedy to regular classical music from Music in the Round.
So to the testing final question to Thiarai: “How would you sum up your time here?”. She briefly attempts evasion before answering it with total conviction: “The audiences are probably the best way to sum it up. People are coming, people are embracing it, people talk about it. And the other thing I would say is that, when I started here, I spent a lot of time trying to talk to people, trying to get them to talk to us. We have to do so little of that now: people ring us and want to talk to us, so we’ve clearly made our mark.”
Image:Alex &Janet Durasow, AD